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Radon Gas (South Devon)

1 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): I thank the Minister for the Environment for attending the debate. His attendance shows the Government's concern about such issues. The right hon. Gentleman's response will be interesting, not only to hon. Members who represent constituencies in Devon, but to those with Cornish constituencies. Since 1992, on average more than 50 people have died each year of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Over the past three years, the number has crept up to about 80 people a year. In contrast, lung cancer causes about 37,000 deaths a year, of which 33,000 are attributable to smoking and 2,000 to 3,000 attributable to radon gas. That puts the matter into perspective.

Radon is a naturally occurring odourless and colourless gas that is formed by the radioactive decay of naturally occurring uranium. It travels through fissures in the subsoil where it usually disperses, but it can accumulate in buildings. Proper ventilation is the solution and, paradoxically, energy conservation measures often make matters worse by trapping the radon gas in buildings.

We receive never-ending advice about personal health and safety. We should eat less fat, more fruit and vegetables and strive towards a healthier lifestyle, yet the importance of reducing high radiation exposure for an estimated quarter of a million people living in homes with excessive radon levels may not have been given the attention that it deserves. There is a significant increase in the lifetime risk of lung cancer for such people.

Devon and Cornwall are particularly badly affected by radon and levels beyond 200 bq/cu m, which is the measurement for radon, are not unusual. At that concentration, the Government's advice is that remedial measures should be taken. Other European countries affected by radon have taken similar action at 200 bq/cu m. Fortunately, Westminster Members of Parliament are spared high radiation exposure, because our main debating Chamber and the extensive cellars, which have been tested, have extremely low exposure to radon. That is mirrored by areas around flood plains and rivers throughout Britain. The Chamber, I am glad to say, has an especially low level.

The risk of lung cancer from radon dramatically increases for smokers as against non-smokers. Analysis carried out by the World Health Organisation in 1996 revealed that, out of 1,000 cases of lung cancer victims who were exposed to radon, 20 were non-smokers, but 980 were smokers. There is a huge multiplier risk for those exposed to radon who smoke as against those who are exposed to radon who do not smoke. That should be distinguished from the additional or accumulative risk that we would expect. Smoking and radon gas multiply the risk to a dramatic degree.

People who spend a lifetime in their homes where radon concentration is more than 200 bq/cu m show lung cancer rates about 20 per cent. higher than those whose radon levels are 20 bq/cu m. Where the concentrations reach 400 bq/cu m, the estimated increase is 40 per cent. About 250,000 people are living in homes with radon levels above the level of 400 bq/cu m. Of course, the workplace is subject to special legislation and employers are liable to ensure safe levels

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of radon in factories and warehouses, but since those places are usually draughty and airy, there is little risk of a radon problem. In fact, I do not think that there has been a factory or a warehouse in which radon levels have been considered to be sufficiently high to take action.

There is no getting away from the fact that radiation exposure to the public from radon gas is more than 1,000 times greater than that from the entire nuclear industry. John Miles of the Nuclear Radiological Protection Board said:

The final piece of evidence that demonstrates the danger of radon is that there have been 1,850 more lung cancer deaths than expected among miners who were exposed to radon, compared with 480 excess deaths from all types of cancers from Japanese nuclear bomb survivors. Those statistics show the scale of the problem.

Areas affected by radon are those where more than 1 per cent. of the houses are likely to have concentrations of radon above the action level, which is 200 bq/cu m. In 1990, the NRPB recommended that the level should be 200 bq/cu m, averaged over a year. One bequerel is equal to one radioactive disintegration per second. That is 10 times the measured United Kingdom average radon exposure, which is 20 bq/cu m. Two hundred bq/cu m is the limit which is considered to be safe. Action is required over that level.

Based on the assumption that all doses of radiation present some risk of cancer, the action level represents a risk of one in 30 of lung cancer from radon gas over a lifetime. That is 10 times higher than the average UK risk of one in 300 from all natural sources of radiation and one in 20 from smoking. Where concentrations are above the action level, the NRPB recommends reduction of concentrations in existing buildings. Additionally, in certain localities in affected areas, the board recommends that preventive measures should be taken against radon entering new buildings.

Areas affected by radon are defined using maps based on radon concentrations measured in the 400,00 houses surveyed to date. Approximately 40,000 of those homes were found to have radon concentrations above the 200 bq/cu m limit. From the survey data, the NRPB has estimated that approximately 100,000 dwellings throughout Britain had radon concentrations above the action level. Most were in England, with Cornwall and Devon being the most significantly affected areas. For example, in the Truro postcode district, the NRPB found that 29 per cent. of dwellings had radon concentrations above the action level. I have mentioned that to the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Matthew Taylor), who unfortunately could not be here today. In Plymouth, the figure was only 14 per cent.

The worrying factor is that only about 10 per cent. of people who have been told that the levels of radon in their homes is above the action level have taken any remedial action. It is as if people believe that their homes are impregnable to radon gas because they cannot see or hear it. Evidence suggests that there is little or no perception of risk and no recognition of the danger. Once the front door is bolted, people feel that nothing can touch them, even though radon gas could be seeping up through the floorboards.

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Since 1998, 80,000 Devon homes have been tested. Of those, 85 per cent. are privately owned. Can the Minister tell me whether anything has been done to ensure the safety of people living in the 10 per cent. of homes that are run by local authorities and housing associations? Many tenants are not aware of the risk and many local authorities have not taken action. Statistically, people living in local authority housing and housing association property are more likely to be smokers.

How should the problem associated with radon gas best be tackled? Radon enters the building primarily from airflow from the underlying ground. Several measures can be taken to achieve protection for occupants and to reduce radon levels. The techniques for reducing radon exposure in new and existing dwellings include under-floor extraction, improved ventilation under suspended timber floors, positive ventilation and sealing cracks and gaps in solid concrete floors. The problem is that few builders will undertake that work because they do not have the skills or the training. If one can find a builder, the cost is more than £1,000, which is out of the reach of pensioners and low-income groups. I make that point because my constituency has the eighth highest proportion of elderly people in the country.

I am advised that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has not capped individual local authority budgets for radon testing, which is up to the discretion of each local authority. I should like to pay tribute to the excellent chief environmental health officer in South Hams district council, Peter Smith. I shall also mention the British Geographical Survey, which has been enormously helpful, and the splendid help that I have had from the House of Commons Library, and especially from Donna Gore of the science and environment section who wrote an excellent paper on radon in 1997 that has not been as widely read as it should have been. I mentioned South Hams district council because the environmental health officer told me that only six radon protection grants have been awarded in the district since 1989, and that only 40 per cent. of the district was surveyed for radon in the late 1980s.

The Government have halted free radon surveys, but the National Radiological Protection Board has unspent money for testing. In South Hams, 20 to 50 per cent. of the housing stock surveyed was above the 200 bq/cu m action level. As for my constituency, the areas affected are not, as I thought they would be, the granite outcrop around Dartmoor, but include Kingsbridge, Dartmouth, Salcombe, Thurlestone, Slapton, Stokenham, Stoke Fleming, Loddiswell and South Brent, where some of the highest figures have been recorded. Properties have been identified in those areas that are 10 to 30 per cent. above the 200 bq/cu m action level. South Hams is one of the worst affected areas in Devon, but only six radon grants have been made.

Radon levels and testing are especially relevant in buildings that are more than 10 years old. Since 1991, guidance on protective measures against radon has been included in building regulations, and in 1999 the Building Research Establishment and the former Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions have produced updated guidance on protective

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measures to reduce the risk to occupants of exposure to radon. That new guidance reflects the greater knowledge of radon-prone areas and the advances made in developing practical, cost-effective measures. That does not, however, apply to the majority of homes that are more than 10 years old. The Government have stated that 3.8 million new houses need to be built by 2011, although that will probably not happen. Of those houses, 700,000 will be in the south-west. Will the Minister confirm that all new houses built in the south-west will be obliged to have radon insulation? We are not discussing money, but raising public awareness. The task is getting home owners to respond to a threat that they can neither see nor smell. It has not been properly recognised as a health risk, but it has been exacerbated by legislation on energy efficiency.

The Government are aware of the problem, but their promotions and publicity have not had the intended effect. Perhaps the media hype about Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is caused by the fear that it is infectious, but 3,000 per cent. more people die from radon exposure than from CJD each year. Public understanding remains poor, although there have been successive local authority programmes since 1987, and a more detailed discussion on a three-year rolling programme announced by the Minister last July that involves more than 30 local authorities. That ends next year, and the question remains about the Government's plans to build on the programme in light of these dangers.

Before 1996, the Government offered free radon tests to all, but since then offers of free radon measurement have been by invitation only—I do not know anybody in my constituency who has had an invitation. The radon test is safe and extremely simple. A small plastic container about the size of a door knob is used, and it contains a piece of plastic that is sensitive to alpha particles, which are emitted by radon. The public can obtain the test through the post for about £35 from the NRPB at an address that I have, but I shall not give in this debate. The public take-up of the test has been disappointing. I have made a meal of the dangers of radon gas, and I do not want it to be construed as a scare story that many of us are breathing in carcinogenic particles as we sleep, but people in the west country, especially in Devon and Cornwall, need to be aware of the risks and the tests available.

For almost no cost, the Government could do much more to raise public awareness through publicity campaigns and encouraging local authority initiatives. We all know the risks of smoking, and we all erroneously believe that there are risks from nuclear energy, but few have comprehended the health risks from radon exposure and that the annual radiation dose can be dramatically increased by living in the wrong part of the country in well-insulated homes. I hope that now that I have raised the public health and safety issue, the media will take up the cudgels and that the Government will consider new initiatives and further action so that some 2,000 to 3,000 lives can be saved in this country each year.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) has sought the permission of the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), the Minister and myself to make a brief contribution, and I am happy to call him.

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1.15 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives): I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I will be brief. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen). Perhaps I should call him my hon. Friend as we share so many interests, and often, as on this occasion, share the analysis.

The hon. Gentleman raised extremely important issues. I am keen to have clearer guidance on how local authorities in south Devon and elsewhere can help householders to reduce the risk posed by radon. In Cornwall, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, of the six local authorities and one on the Isles of Scilly only one, Kerrier, is part of the Government's scheme on this. In Penwith in the west of Cornwall, 10,500 of 19,00 properties have a radon risk level of more than 30 per cent., which certainly requires action. The matter is of deep concern.

In a parliamentary answer given on 29 November, the hon. Gentleman was told that £705 million in housing capital grants is available for this year. However, it is not known exactly how much of that is to be directed towards addressing the problem of radon, which the hon. Gentleman has articulately put before us today. The Minister and the Department must ensure that the grants available are more targeted to address the serious and important issue.

1.18 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher) : I sincerely congratulate the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on making a well-documented and serious case for greater focus on the problem of radon. He drew attention to the fact that far more people—I think that he said 3,000—die each year from radon poisoning than from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Although we know that the main cause of death from lung cancer is, overwhelmingly, smoking, a significant proportion of lung cancer deaths is nevertheless attributable to radon.

The hon. Gentleman made a powerful comparison between the risks associated with mining, or those affecting survivors of the Japanese A bomb, and the mortality risk from radon. That the issue is serious is not in dispute. I will try to answer his questions as precisely as I can in the time available.

In 1990, following advice from the National Radiological Protection Board, the Government set a radon action level of 200 bq/cu m, as the hon. Gentleman said. That is half the 1987 level. It was deliberately tightened on advice. It is about 10 times the average UK level of exposure and is the standard used. Where radon levels greater than that are found, householders are strongly advised to take action to reduce them. It is estimated that, at that level, there is a lifetime risk of 3 to 5 per cent. for the general population of contracting lung cancer. For non-smokers, the risk will be about 1 to 3 per cent., but, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the risk is much greater for those who smoke: approximately 10 to 15 per cent.

Following research by the NRPB in the mid-1980s, which identified that radon was a problem in the UK, successive Governments have introduced measures to try to combat its effects. Initially, those centred on offering free measurement to the areas most affected. In

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England, that meant Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Northamptonshire and Derbyshire. Later, following extensive mapping, the measurement programme was extended to include many other parts of the country in which high radon levels were found.

In 1998, we completed a programme to ensure that every household in England with a more than 5 per cent. probability of exceeding the radon action level had received the offer of a free measurement. Some 400,000 measurements have been made, at no cost to the householder, since the programme began in 1987, and about 40,000 homes—one in 10—were found to be above the action level. In relation to the number of measurements carried out in Devon, I know that the hon. Gentleman was given a figure of 80,000, but having updated the database we now think that it is just over 94,000. The large majority were paid for by the Government at an approximate cost of £2.5 million. In Devon, 7,100 homes were found to be above the action level. It is striking that the highest level found was 5,300 bq/cu m. High levels have been found in several areas of the county.

Where a home is found to be above the action level, the householder is faced with the problem of what to do next. The various courses of action are set out in booklets prepared by the Department, which provide general advice to householders about radon, specific guidance about the types of remedial measures that can be employed, and information for those who are buying or selling houses in radon-affected areas. Householders can obtain additional advice on remediation methods over the telephone from the Building Research Establishment, which runs a hotline under contract from the Department.

The costs of remedial action can vary markedly. Establishing better airflow under suspended floors may be all that is necessary for a home that is just a little above the action level. If the problem has been caused because airbricks have been overgrown by plants or blocked in other ways, it can be solved fairly easily at no monetary cost.

The most effective method of reducing radon levels, which is necessary for the highest levels, is the sump system. The sump is a small void about the size of a bucket that is dug under a solid ground floor and to which a pipe and a fan are attached. The fan gently draws the radon-laden air from underneath the floor and prevents it from entering the home. The cost of such a system varies depending on its exact method of installation, but it is typically between £600 and £1,000. Its installation is not beyond the ability of an experienced DIY enthusiast—in which case the cost would drop significantly—although one should be careful about that.

Mr. Steen : Some homeowners may wish to bury their information about radon gas because they think that if their levels are as high as 5,000, or anything above 400, that might affect the price of their freehold. Is there anything that the Minister can say or do about that?

Mr. Meacher : The right way to deal with that is to have in place a system that draws off the radon and can be demonstrated to make the house effectively free of radon in the sense that any radon that is present is below

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the action level. No Government can offer subsidies for householders to maintain value, but we can and will ensure that the cause of any likelihood of reduced value is properly addressed at public cost.

Although radon remedial work can be expensive, it need not necessarily be so, and even the most expensive options are similar in price to other building works that householders may have to face to keep their properties in good condition.

There are provisions to help those least able to pay for radon remedial works. Local authorities have discretionary powers to award house renovation grants and home repair assistance to help with the cost of radon remedial work. Renovation grants have no upper limit and are not means-tested. Home repair assistance is limited to a maximum of £5,000 per application, which is reasonably generous. It is not means-tested, but the applicant must be 60 or more years old, or on a state benefit.

A regulatory reform order before the House will give local authorities the power to offer subsidised loans or an equity release scheme for home renovation, rather than grants, as is currently the case. Local authorities will be able to continue assisting radon remedial works under that general power, but will have the freedom to decide whether to fund the works through a grant or a loan and will not be obliged to apply a means test.

The hon. Gentleman asked about new build, and quoted a figure of 700,000 homes expected in the south-west, which I presume is accurate. Under the building regulations, guidance designed to prevent radon from becoming a problem in newly built homes was first issued in 1990, and covered Devon and Cornwall. Later, that guidance was extended to cover parts of Somerset, Northamptonshire and Derbyshire. The protective measures were updated, and the area covered was greatly increased in 1999, to take into account the latest research on building methods and the survey work carried out by the NRPB and the British Geological Survey. Basic protection, required under the regulation, comprises the modification of the damp-proof membrane so that it forms a radon-proof barrier that extends across the whole of the ground floor of the dwelling, including through the walls. In areas of higher radon potential, full radon protection may be required. That comprises the radon-proof barrier, supplemented by a sump in case it should be necessary to draw the radon-laden air from beneath the building.

When the radon programme first began 15 years ago, it was widely believed that householders whose homes were above the action level would take prompt action.

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Research in recent years has shown that that was correct only to a limited extent. Approximately 10 to 20 per cent. of such householders are thought to have taken action to reduce their radon levels, a figure that I find disappointing. However, the research discovered that many householders would be prepared to carry out remedial work if they were given greater support in the process from a source that they knew and trusted.

In 1998, we carried out pilot studies in partnership with Derbyshire Dales, Cherwell and Mendip district councils. The local authorities provided the public face of the initiative and ensured that it was responsive to local needs and knowledge. The Department provided resources to support the local authority. The pilot study showed that that approach worked well and could double the background remediation rate. That is helpful, but we still have a long way to go.

The support provided by the Department, largely using contractors, includes free radon measurements to identify homes above the action level, and to confirm that remedial action has worked. Expert NRPB advice was provided to local authorities, the local medical community and householders about the health effects of radon. Expert advice from the Building Research Establishment was supplied to the local authorities, local builders and housing professionals and householders about remediation methods. Locally branded publicity materials were provided to meet the local authority's needs, and consultants helped the local authorities draw up their action plans and handle logistics.

In 2000, following discussions with the local authorities, we rolled out a programme based on the lessons learned in the pilot studies. A good practice guide was prepared to disseminate the information. The areas of 78 local authorities were transected by areas with 5 per cent. or more probability that homes would be above the action level, and they were invited to participate. I am pleased to say that 33 authorities have volunteered to work with us. Three authorities in Devon are participating in a programme—South Hams district council, Torbay district council and West Devon borough council. Their plans have, unfortunately, been delayed because of foot and mouth disease, but we look forward now to working with those three authorities to re-activate their plans in the near future. We shall carry out a review of the roll-out programme when sufficient progress has been made to allow us to determine how successful it has been and I hope that that will be before the end of this year. We shall then make our judgment on the future direction of the Government's radon programme.

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